Monday, February 05, 2018


Once upon a time audiences prized clean sharp, draftsmanship.

Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby

Slick, controlled lines, sparkling use of blacks, fast descriptive strokes-- all of these projected an aura of confidence and virtuosity.

Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby
Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby

Smooth, evenly spaced, connected lines completed with pen or brush:

Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon
See the closeup below:

Flash Gordon (detail)

Cartoonist Leonard Starr described how his friend Stan Drake wielded his "flexible rapier-like" Gillott 291 pen nib: "Stan whipped that sucker around like Zorro."  The same might be said about the way Alex Raymond drew his comic strip, Rip Kirby.

Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby

Note for example the rapier-like snap on the side of that glove:

Rip Kirby (detail)

But this type of skill is no longer prized as much.  Many audiences today tend to be suspicious of slick, polished drawing.  They often prefer a rougher, more primitive look, or a simple monotone line.  They seem to view these as more authentic or sincere.  

But are they?  Each day this week I will showcase examples of drawings by a different artist who uses that clean, sharp look and perhaps we can discuss whether these virtues are still valuable and relevant.  


Gianmaria Caschetto said...

Great Post. I'm probably guilty myself of preferring a rougher, more impressionistic style over a clean and slick one, but only when the underlying draftsmanship is equally as solid.
Have you ever given a look to the work of late Argentinian cartoonist Jorge Zaffino?
At first I was scared by he apparent brutality of his work, but I've come to appriciate and then love it. He was influneced by artists like Raymond, Foster, Toth and Williamson, but then developed this incredible rough, "unfinished" look which was absolutely stunning. What made it work though was the incredible draftsmanship underneath.

chris bennett said...

The answer to your question David is 'no'. It is the organic unity of a work that is the hallmark of truthfulness, not the type of face it has.

Wonderful post by-the-way. Thank you.

Ibrahim R. Ineke said...

Always humbling to see.

Alan Hartley said...

I can appreciate and enjoy these pictures because someone else has done them. I am my own harshest critic; if I had done those I would be uneasy because if you study them closely, particularly the last two, they're not so slick and are quite awkward and not so smooth in places, and I would just be beating myself up about it and in the bin they would go! This is why I mostly use pencils in a slightly rough and unfinished way, partly because it masks my inability to be slick, and I actually genuinely like that look.

kev ferrara said...

Those are top-shelf Rip Kirby panels. Wow!

If I were to guess at why these kinds of miraculous little jewels aren't as appreciated as they should be, I would say it's because the more people succumb to the steady fashionable sensations of screen technologies the less than can see beyond them. People are so easily walled in to their era, but the walls are getting thicker and closer by the day.

On the rare chances that people actually see ink work they would naturally think "old fashioned" or "old school." The inking conventions, even paper, that Raymond used, too, smack of a bygone era. Same goes for the formal attire the characters wear. And the subject matter. People, if they see "Old school" art at all, probably mostly see all the ways that the art is out of their time, rather than all the deeper ways it is still in tune. It takes time to get past the surface; it takes attentiveness.

So they never get down to the subtle, well observed characters, with the deftly articulated faces and hands and gestures. They never notice the drawing, especially aspects of the drawing that are done with such proficiency that they aren't noticed. They don't take the time to ponder the dazzling general effect; "why is this artwork so fresh and sparkling? What makes it so?"

The depressing thought is that; maybe most people are so incurious, they never find wonder in art at all. Maybe they're just too busy swiping between dopamine hits. I keep wondering when the massive medical class action lawsuits against LED-screen manufacturers and social media platforms will begin.

Paul Sullivan said...

This is an excellent post. Thanks.

Paul Sullivan said...

I’m not sure what Alan Hartley is referring to.

This is an excellent post with an interesting question presented for consideration. However, it should be pointed out that these drawings appear to have been photographed from the original art and displayed as continuous tone images. They were done originally to be shot as line art which would present an even sharper contrast, as Raymond intended. This has some importance since we're considering the merit of the “clean, sharp look”. As it is, we "see through" some of the thinned down ink for the brush work in the Flash Gordon example and its enlargements. In the Rip Kirby panels we are even seeing the build up of ink in some of the blacks. Regardless, it's always fun to see Alex Raymond's work!

Donald Pittenger said...

The Raymond work shown here is a clear example of an artist who knows his stuff, both artistically and technically. It'll be interesting to see what you show in the next installment, David. Also, how about an example of the stuff this is a reaction to ... just to provide context.

Anonymous said...

Looking at this is like drawing a deep breath of fresh clean air - 3 values , white black and crosshatching for grey , no place to hide deficiencies . Al Williamson's X-9 best work was comparable to Raymond .

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

Gianmaria Caschetto-- Thanks for writing. Yes, I like the work ofJorge Zaffino very much. I think "apparent brutality" is a good way to describe it. He has a powerful style. If I had access to good scans of his originals I certainly would have written about him on my blog.

Chris Bennett-- I agree that "organic unity" is an important quality in art, and that it is indeed a mark of truthfulness, but just to be clear, I assume, however, that you are looking for more than that from your art? After all, we've all seen art that can be organically unified but still bad. There are people out there (they've written to me) who find Raymond's work boring or uninteresting because it doesn't make a statement about the absurdity of society or reveal any sincere internal trauma about his adolescence, or about coming out, or about political injustice.

Ibrahim R. Ineke-- Thanks, I agree. Raymond is one of those permanent fixtures in comic art; he's aways out there but we forget how good he was unless we go back and take a fresh look at what he accomplished (for decades).

David Apatoff said...

Alan Hartley-- I included that final image because I liked the way it showed that, even within a polished, controlled drawing we can see where the ink bleeds when the pen nib rests, and how the artist allowed himself the pleasure of a lacy line that sweeps around, rather than mechanically following a straight pencil line. As for the penultimate image, I'd be interested in what you find awkward about it. It seems to me that Raymond has taken a few liberties with anatomy-- for example, elongating the neck and fingers of that imperious, regal woman. But I think that was intentional. One of the things about these slick, realistic pictures is that they tolerate expressive elasticity, just as Ingres (one of the most polished artists of all time) stretched his Grand Odalisque out of all proportion. But more about that later.

Kev Ferrara-- I'm glad you like them. I do fear you are correct about people becoming visually incurious, so that they never appreciate the deeper qualities of art that they are missing, the qualities that require calm reflection.

The last 150 years has seen the daily environment for ordinary people (their homes, their work places, their streets) go from being almost totally devoid of pictures to becoming flooded with images. Once books, magazines, billboards, ads on subway trains, and other fixed surfaces became filled with images so there was almost no space left, they started being replaced by screens with temporary, rotating images. At first this role was played by computer monitors that zipped through images, but now huge billboards take up the sides of skyscrapers with moving pictures (a la Bladerunner). It's great to have access to all these images, but how many pages of pinterest or flickr can you scroll through before you stop noticing details and your senses become dulled? Have we already passed the optimal level of access to images, or do we need to think differently about art where, as it used to be, the image stood still and forced our brains to move?

Paul Sullivan-- Many thanks. And you're absolutely right about the density of Raymond's ink-- he knew that those marks would all reproduce as solid black, but it's kind of fun to reverse engineer how Raymond constructed the picture by looking at "the build up of ink" from different tools, with different levels of dilution.

Laurence John said...

‘slick’ (a word you’ve used in both posts) is dangerously close to ‘facile’ with all that that suggests. which goes some way to explaining why ‘clean and sharp’ (as a style) is usually not associated with artistic profundity. the opposite of ‘slick’: scratchy, knotty, crooked etc. may of course be employed by sham-artists to make themselves look deeper than they are, but...

whether such stylistic guilt-by-association or value-by-association is merited or not is a very long-winded issue (mainly because you’d have to look at each artist’s body of work on a case by case basis. generalisations like slick=facile and crude=deep won’t do)… but i’ve learnt over the years that you cannot undo such cultural associations easily. you just can’t. cultural ‘taste’ is actually made out of such associations.

chris bennett said...


Someone could offer up a blank rectangle as a work of art and it would possess 'organic unity'. It would not be 'bad art', it would simply not be art at all. I say this because art is a communication of meaningfulness. To convey this meaningfulness always requires organic unity as it is the condition by which meaningfulness is made known to us.

kev ferrara said...


I think what you intended to say was that, if art is predicated on the aesthetic communication of meaning, then a blank rectangle cannot be art because it has no content to communicate.

Organic Unity is not a mark of truth. A work of balderdash can be structured to have organic unity. Organic unity can be generated simply on the basis of the variety-in-unity heuristic. For example, if one recorded a minute of sheep randomly bleating in a farmyard, their cries, taken as music, would exhibit organic unity; repetitions of the same general bleating sounds, each different enough to be distinct from others in quality and time. The result would be a pattern relating the parts to the whole, but without necessarily bringing any meaning to mind.

Given that a blank canvas has no variety, its unity would not be organic.

chris bennett said...


By definition, anything in nature has organic unity in that it is what it is, in other words it can never be a symbol of itself. So I'm talking about organic unity evidenced within a fictional construct. Each time we solve our inner vision's specific and unique problem in order to realise it, the result is an expression possessing an organic thoroughness that is so deep it gives off a kind of magic. 'Truth' is another word for it.

Would you agree?

kev ferrara said...


I think coherence theories of truth in Art (and in every other domain of inquiry) lead to the conflation of mere Design Games with actual expressions of wisdom.

We have enough human products that shine with inner vision and internal consistency, but which have no bearing on experience, to demonstrate that organic unity, per se, does not equate to truth. A partial truth can be perfectly coherent given the data set, but a completely lie when all the relevant factors are admitted. A game of chess is full of meaning, assertions, proofs, logic, realizations, and themes, and the game is nothing if not replete with self-consistency and pattern... but one cannot say that a chess game is true. The works of madmen demonstrate that passion alone does not grant truth value to inner visions.

I do think a great work of art necessarily has an organic unity mapped with expressions of truth. But that is not equivalent to what you are saying.

chris bennett said...


I do think a great work of art necessarily has an organic unity mapped with expressions of truth. But that is not equivalent to what you are saying.

That is in fact what I thought I was saying, so I've had a comb through my last couple of replies on this. My sentence; "to convey this meaningfulness always requires organic unity as it is the condition by which meaningfulness is made known to us", may well be the problem. It is a little slippery, especially with that stress on 'the', and could be taken to mean that organic unity always contains truth, but as far as I can tell it does not necessarily preclude your (admittedly clearer) statement about the matter.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger wrote: "how about an example of the stuff this is a reaction to ... just to provide context?"

In the past, I've shown examples of several artists who I believe draw badly using a primitive or crude line, but who are nevertheless wildly popular and even lauded as "geniuses" or "masters of American comics." These artists include Gary Panter, Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, etc. etc. (N.B.: I've always been careful not to criticize artists who are still learning or struggling, and focused only on examples who fans have placed at the very peak of the pyramid. Even then, most of my criticisms have been leveled at the bad taste of the swooning fans, rather than personal attacks on the artists.)

I should emphasize that, while I am defending a skill that is no longer fashionable in these posts, it does not mean that artists who lack this skill are in any way bad. I like the content of several of the artists listed above, although I sometimes wonder what role the visual medium plays in their success. There are great artists whose style I view as the opposite of "slick"-- George Herriman is a primary example, and I adore his work. R. Crumb looks like he draws with a cigar butt-- his images are anything but sleek and polished-- yet I think his work is very effective. Then there are artists such as Barry Blitt who I think has sometimes done very good work in a rough, naïve vein but who I think is often a lazy slob (perhaps as a result of New Yorker deadlines); he is the flavor of the month but I think he should be ashamed of some of the drawing he has passed off on New Yorker covers. So you see, in my mind there isn't one single dichotomy between polished and messy.

I thought about putting up some examples of drawings I regard as crude or unpolished because I agree it would be a helpful comparison, but recently Kev Ferrara commented that he has stopped criticizing living artists and I thought, "Wow, if Kev ("scorched earth") Ferrara is going to be so magnanimous about the failings of current artists, I should probably aspire to do the same." We'll see how long it lasts.

Anonymous / Al McLuckie-- I'm glad you like these. For me, the pleasure of seeing them is doubled by the pleasure of sharing them with people who have eyes to see. As I'm sure you know. Williamson was a real Raymond acolyte.